Will my kids be proud of me?
“What did you want to be when you growed up, Mama?” my 5-year-old son, Archer, asks me as I lie next to him in his bed. It’s one of our nightly bedtime chats, in which we talk until I wear him down and he nods off and I sneak out.
“Well,” I say, stroking his hair, “I always wanted to be a ballet dancer or an author.”
“Oh, so is that what you do now?” he asks, earnestly.
Ouch. Leave it to a child to remind you of your failures.
“Not exactly,” I stammer, “I write, just not books. And you’ve seen me dance.”
He laughs. And I see that my answer satisfies him so I shift the focus. “Now it’s your turn. What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Shifting the focus seems to be a successful parenting tactic, in my experience. Kids — at this age — aren’t really interested in anyone but themselves. Archer doesn’t ask me any follow-up questions about my writing, dancing or lack thereof. He just wants my attention. And I give it to him.
“I want to be a veterinarian, dog walker, doctor, pilot or artist,” he tells me before his heavy eyelids fall shut. And then I do what I always do when he falls asleep: I stare at his beautiful face and marvel in the miracle of his existence. I smell his hair, kiss his cheek and linger a bit, hoping he doesn’t follow through with the dog walker thing.
That’s the thing about parenthood: It gives you a reality check. Sure, I had career goals in my 20s and 30s, but I didn’t agonize over them. I thought I had all of the time in the world to write a book, get my PhD, travel to Peru to do Ayahuasca and anything else that would make my future-kids proud.
And then one day I woke up and I was driving under the speed limit with a “Baby on Board’’ bumper sticker, dancing to “I”m a Little Teapot,” shoving handfuls of Goldfish into my mouth, singing “Baby Shark,” tossing out all of my Victoria’s Secret thongs, wearing high-waisted cotton briefs, and picking stickers and play-doh out of my hair before going to bed at 8 p.m. Who was I and how was I going to find the time to make my kids proud?
Purging my demons via a psychoactive brew in a foreign country would have to wait. Besides, I was already wrestling those demons at home. Parenthood forces us to look at our past, namely our childhood, and try to make some sort of sense out of it. Understanding our younger selves as well as our parents is thought to make us better present-day parents, or so research says.
It makes sense. Recognizing the ways in which our parents affected us is all a part of becoming an adult. And with that understanding — not blaming — we can see the way our past plays out in our parenting style, behavior and how it affects our children.
My mom was a pushover. To get out of being grounded, I’d write her a sweet poem detailing my love for her, and I was free to go out. And she never said ‘no’ to treats. After-school snacks were Twinkies or Doritos, while homemade cinnamon rolls, cake and bread were always available. Friends loved to come over because rules were minimal and my mom was “fun.”
All of this is to say that when I pick my kids up from school, I have a treat for them. Putting them in time-out is gut-wrenching and I don’t put up a fight when they want to sleep in my bed. These behaviors, albeit instinctual, have been the root of many arguments with my husband. And I get it. I do. I’m working on becoming a better disciplinarian. Treats have decreased, chores have increased and rules are enforced.
So when I obsessively wonder if my children will be proud of me, maybe I shouldn’t. Instead, I should take comfort in knowing that I’m constantly trying to be and do better — for them.